The dazed owner of a Chinese vase that fetched a world record price of £53 million on Thursday was not the only person who felt faint and had to step outside for a breath of air to recover. The art market collectively took an enormous gulp of oxygen. So did the grand auction houses. The previous record – of £18 million for a vase sold by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong – had lasted for precisely five weeks. Even more boggling, it had been toppled by a small family auction house in Ruislip that no one had ever heard of. And, final absurdity, the vase was discovered in the Pooterish west London suburb of Pinner.
Pinner! A leafy enclave until yesterday best known as the setting for the BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave and the birthplace of Sir Patrick Moore.
Pinner is the apotheosis of the treasure-in-the-attic story. The mother and son who were told they owned an 18th-century Qianlong dynasty vase when they arranged a house clearance on the death of a family member are now multi-millionaires. Bainbridge’s of Ruislip, who estimated that it would fetch between £800,000 and £1.2 million, have scooped a life-changing £8.6 million and struck a blow for provincial expertise. Bainbridge’s previous highest sale was £100,000 for a Ming enamel piece two years ago.
“The top car auctions are happy if they get £26 million for an entire sale,” said Peter Bainbridge yesterday. “We just got £43 million [excluding fees] for one lot. These are figures that no one in the world gets round easily.”
No holds, and certainly no attics, are barred in the ceramic wars now. Until about 10 years ago, most Chinese antiquities were sold to the West. Now the traffic is all the other way as the Chinese economy roars like a dragon, enabling its collectors to snatch back treasures from foreign parts, shattering auction house records along the way. Trophies like this have become a symbol of national pride. The Chinese do not see why Impressionist paintings should be more valuable than their own Imperial works of art. Could the Pinner Vase – as it would be known if it had been dug up – be the continuation of the Opium Wars by other means?
John Axford, head of the Chinese department at Woolley and Wallis, the Salisbury estate agents, handled the 16in vase for 15 minutes at the London viewing. “The big question,” he says, “was: Is it genuine? When I saw it I thought: Oh my God. It was a terrific piece, unbelieveably rare, an extraordinary tour de force of craftsmanship. It is exactly what everyone wants – a piece from the high Imperial Qing dynasty, the best porcelain. It uses all sorts of techniques including grisaille and celadon glaze. There is nothing like it outside the Palace Museum in Beijing. The only thing it doesn’t do is revolve.
“My second question was: How on earth did this piece get out?”
He believes the vase could have been looted by British or French soldiers from the Forbidden City or the Imperial family’s old Summer Palace in Beijing towards the end of the Second Opium War of 1856-1860 – the climax of trade disputes between China, under the Qing dynasty, and the British Empire over Britain’s illegal opium trafficking. “Most valuable Chinese Imperial art from the 18th century turns up in old English or French collections,” he says. “I would have said it would make £10 to £25 million, but £43 million is extraordinary. This is why the Chinese art market is so exciting. No one can predict what will happen.
“This shows that rare pieces do not have to be sold in Hong Kong. Sotheby’s and Christie’s would like to think they are the only people who can sell lovely things at these ridiculous prices, but it’s not true.” Axford held the previous record for the highest price achieved outside London for a work of art – £3.4 million for a jade water buffalo.
The vase is undoubtedly a lovely thing, with its double-skinned lattice work, depictions of cavorting carp (a symbol of plenty) and primrose yellow trumpet neck. Michel Lee, curator of the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, says it is also a technical masterpiece. “The double-walled construction is rare and difficult. Both pieces have to be fired at the same time. But the glaze must not stick. More than half such pieces have to be destroyed because they fuse together.”
Lee says he was “shocked but not shocked” by the price of the vase, now the most expensive Chinese work of art in the world. “The wealth in China means that every year you get record-breaking results. If you have two wealthy Chinese people competing for the same thing, price is not an issue.”
Pinner beware. It could be a matter of weeks before your glory is eclipsed by some ludicrous new triumph in the Chinese ceramic wars.